The Freezer Bowl: When the Chargers and Bengals played the coldest NFL game ever

The Enquirer/Gerry Wolter

There have been many bone-chillingly cold football games throughout the history of the NFL and they all pale in comparison to the 1981 AFC Championship Game between the Cincinnati Bengals and San Diego Chargers.

The Chargers and Bengals squared off in the coldest game in NFL history on the same day Dwight Clark came down with "The Catch" for the San Francisco 49ers against the Dallas Cowboys. Both Cincinnati and San Diego were playing for the first Super Bowl appearance in franchise history.

Now dubbed the "Freezer Bowl", the 1981 AFC Championship is one of the most famous games in NFL history worth recounting every time these two teams face one another.

The Freezer Bowl temperature reached all-time lows

The temperature at Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium checked in at -9 degrees Fahrenheit (-23 degrees Celsius) at kickoff. The 1967 "Ice Bowl" between the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys is the only game in NFL history with a lower air temperature, checking in at -13 degrees Fahrenheit.

As if -9 degrees Fahrenheit wasn't cold enough, it was also an extremely windy day in Cincinnati on January 10, 1982. With 27 MPH winds blowing off the Ohio River, the reported wind chill was -59 degrees Fahrenheit (-51 degrees Celsius), making it the coldest game by wind chill factor in NFL history.

Who won the Freezer Bowl?

The hometown Cincinnati Bengals benefitted the most from the frigid temperatures and used the conditions to their benefit. Instead of deferring after winning the pre-game coin toss (the standard decision teams make), the Bengals opted to take field position and kick with the wind.

As a result, the Chargers elected to receive to start the game and to start the second half. Despite giving possession away, this played in the Bengals' favor as it forced the Chargers to drive directly into the wind in the first and third quarters.

That is when the Bengals did most of their damage. Cincinnati scored 10 unanswered points in the first quarter while Chargers kicker Rolf Benirschke missed a 37-yard field goal.

San Diego cut the deficit to three with a touchdown in the second quarter that was instantly countered by a Bengals touchdown to give Cincy a 17-7 lead at halftime. Two interceptions (aided by the conditions) and a fumble in the second half halted any momentum the Chargers would begin to create, resulting in a 27-7 Bengals victory.

The Chargers and Bengals had vastly different paths to the Freezer Bowl

As if one historic game in the playoffs wasn't enough, it took another infamous playoff game for the Chargers to even reach the AFC Championship. One week before playing in frigid temperatures, the Chargers defeated the Miami Dolphins in overtime in what is known as the "Epic in Miami". Factoring in wind chill, the difference in temperature between the two games was 147 degrees Fahrenheit.

The Chargers made the playoffs by going 10-6 in the regular season to win the AFC West. San Diego had a worse record than Miami and Cincinnati, losing 17-40 to the Bengals in the regular season.

Cincinnati rode one of the best offenses in the league to an AFC-best 12-4 record in the regular season. Before facing the Chargers, the Bengals played a much less noteworthy Divisional Round game against the Buffalo Bills. The Bengals are 3-0 all-time against the Bills in the playoffs.

The fallout from the Freezer Bowl

Cincinnati went on to play in the team's first-ever Super Bowl against the San Francisco 49ers, who were also in the Super Bowl for the first time. After winning the turnover battle 4-1 against the Chargers in the AFC Championship Game, the Bengals couldn't overcome a 1-4 turnover deficit in the Super Bowl, losing 26-21.

This essentially kickstarted the 49ers dynasty. San Francisco reached (and won) the Super Bowl three more times throughout the rest of the 1980s. One of those wins was against the Bengals in 1989. It was Cincinnati's last Super Bowl appearance until 2022 when the team lost to the Los Angeles Rams.

After a five-year drought without a Super Bowl appearance, the 49ers reached the big game one last time after a 13-3 season with Steve Young in 1994. In a full-circle moment, the 49ers defeated the Chargers in the team's lone Super Bowl appearance. The 49ers have not won a Super Bowl since.

As for the Chargers, the "Freezer Bowl" was the team's second-consecutive loss in the AFC Championship and wound up being the last chance Hall of Famers Don Coryell and Dan Fouts had at making the Super Bowl. The Chargers lost to the Miami Dolphins in the Divisional Round the following year. It was the last time the team made the playoffs under Coryell and Fouts.

The Chargers have played in only two AFC Championship Games since the "Freezer Bowl". Overall, the team has a 1-3 record in the AFC Championship.